Ready for an independent Kurdistan?

Masoud Barzani, the head of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), seems ever more determined to hold a referendum on independence.

While the entire region is being redesigned, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) willingness to seize the opportunity is understandable. Turkey’s response, however, will be critical, particularly as the prospects for the revival of the peace process with its own Kurds seem so dim and an ongoing insurgency threatens to spread across the country.

Since mid-2015, when Baghdad failed to pay the KRG a 17 percent share of the federal budget – prompting the KRG to export crude independently – Turkey has been the neighbor of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

But a formal declaration of independence would be a giant step with ramifications for Iraq’s territorial integrity as well as the future of the Kurdish movement in the region, including Turkey’s Kurds.

Henri J. Barkey, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, asserts that Turkey makes a distinction between “bad Kurds” and “good Kurds,” noting that Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), together with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fall into the former as they present a threat to Turkey’s integrity, whereas the KRG falls into the latter as a result of growing interdependence between Ankara and Arbil.

The fact that Turkey tried to insulate bilateral relations with the KRG from developments in Syria and an insurgency at home reflects such a duality in Turkey’s approach to the region’s Kurds.

Aydın Selcen Turkey’s former consul general in Arbil, points at a  similar duality observed in Turkey’s relations, not only favoring Arbil over Baghdad but also favoring Arbil over Suleymaniye, in a way to distinguish between the main political actors in northern Iraq, namely the KDP, KYB and Goran.

In this context, Barzani’s visit to Turkey early last month marked a watershed in terms of bilateral ties regarding diplomatic symbols. For the first time, along with Iraqi and Turkish flags, a Kurdistan flag was present in the meeting room, eliciting enthusiasm in the Kurdish press and even giving rise to interpretations that it was a green light for Kurdish independence.

Even before Barzani’s visit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan assumed a neutral position last May, saying a decision on independence was a domestic issue for Iraq.

It is true that compared to its ties with Baghdad, which is overtly under Iranian influence, Turkey boasts much more cordial relations with Arbil.

The KRG constitutes an important market for Turkish exports. Besides, about 650,000 barrels of Iraqi crude oil reaches Turkey’s Ceyhan Port every day for export to world markets.

Apart from the oil trade, huge reserves of natural gas in northern Iraq have whetted the appetite of Turkey’s energy sector, particularly at a time when relations with both Russiaand Iran, two of the main gas suppliers to Turkey, have been strained. According to Bosphorus Energy Club Chair Mehmet Öğütçü, the infrastructure to carry natural gas from the KRG to Turkey will be ready in three years and that the bid to build the Şırnak Natural Gas Pipeline is expected to be opened in February.

There is also a security dimension to bilateral ties between Ankara and Arbil. Turkey has operated a number of military bases in northern Iraq since the 1990s and Turkish military advisers have been training Kurdish Peshmerga forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for over a year.

Nevertheless, interdependence does not guarantee a positive reaction from Turkey in the event of a declaration of independence. This said, possessing an unfavorable view of independence and preventing its occurrence are two different things.

With Turkey facing an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan amid the prospects of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, reinvigorating its own peace process will certainly strengthen Turkey’s hand vis-à-vis its own Kurds without damaging relations with Arbil.